Van Duzen River

Van Duzen River

It was an early summer morning in Northern California. Dennis Pippin and I left San Francisco at first light and headed north across the Golden Gate Bridge into the redwood empire. Much of our journey was through fog and low cloud. There were some welcome sunny breaks from the Sonoma County wine country to around Willits where we descended into ghostly murk in the valley of the Eel River’s South Fork. We could smell the dank redwood groves and knew that this summer moisture was their reason for being. Only a few kilometres inland are sun baked hills with a rather thin cover of fir, oak and pine where the grasshoppers carry their own water. Here in the humid fog belt there are no grasshoppers and little grass. Just huge redwoods and the familiar salal, Sword Fern and salmonberry of the Northwest Coastal Forest. I think of this fog as battle smoke between the opposing forces of heat and cold. The searing summer heat of interior California versus the always cold North Pacific Ocean. The redwoods watch the battle and encourage the animosity.

We leave the Redwood Highway and swing east a few miles south of Fortuna. This is the Van Duzen Valley and the redwoods are still with us but not for long. Shafts of sunlight are breaking through the fog and more firs are starting to show. Suddenly it’s over. We have passed the eastern
battle front into the land where summer rules supreme. Once in awhile the cold evening fog will charge a few kilometres inland but it’s of no consequence. The oaks, quail and grasshoppers shrug it off in the morning sun.

The Van Duzen is a small river sometimes nothing more than an intermittent creek in late summer and fall. But the fish can penetrate well
into the headwaters and there are solid canyon reaches where deep pools survive the drought – steelhead pools. In the late summer some of them hold large numbers of fish because they offer the only cover for long distances. The fish know it and hold tight until the rain returns. This was June however and there was still plenty of water. The fish should be fairly well spread out but beginning to home on the canyons because the lower river was starting to shrinkto a level where the steelhead would not spend many idle moments there.

Just below the little community of Bridgeville is the first canyon reach marked by a huge cigar shaped rock. We had heard of this rock and the pools it guarded. “Try there” we were told. Neither of us had caught or even seen a steelhead before but I had read everything I could find about them and felt we could catch one if there were any around we could cover. I decided that salmon roe would be the best even though I knew the purists would not think kindly of us for using it. But there weren’t any purists around and we were rookies looking for our first fish. We told ourselves that the purists had probably snagged their first steelhead and after we caught a few it would be nothing but dry flies. I had made up some roe baits the night before by wrapping small portions in fine meshed red netting. The outdoor magazines said that this was the new invincible way to catch Northern California steelhead.

We gathered our gear and headed down to the river. A faint path wound through early summer wild flowers. We could hear the water gurgling between large boulders. In minutes we were beside the deep and crystal clear stream with good current running. Our hands were shaking a little. There were two fishable pools. I took the lower one while Dennis scrambled around some large rocks to the upper pool. I studied the water for a few moments to decide where to cast. I think the first cast is always the most important and I wanted to make the best of it. A steelhead boiled near the pool tail spill and my hands started to sweat. I cast well upstream of the rise because I had little weight on. I gave the river lots of line so the bait would be well down when it reached the tail spill. When I recovered about half the slack, I felt the fish – just a few little pumps on the line as it shook its head. I set the hook expecting the pool to erupt. Summer steelhead were supposed to be the most spectacularof all northwest sport fish.  The fish raced around the pool a few turns and broke the surface rather lightly then just cruised around. I was using an eight foot fly rod and light spinning reel with six pound line and didn`t put much pressure on the fish even though I could see that it wasn`t very large – maybe five pounds. I applied more pressure but not much happened for perhaps five minutes – just some head shaking and short runs. The pool was not large enough for a screaming run but the fish could have easily left it and said goodbye if it wanted to. The pool outlet was very narrow with a small cascade so perhaps the fish was fearful of navigating it. After a few minutes longer, I could control the fish somewhat and began to believe I might land it. I was standing on a ledge about a metre above the pool fairly close to the inlet race. The water struck the rock below me at an angle and veered off with some velocity. I drew the fish closer and soon had it within reach. I could now see that it was a beautiful female with just a hint of pink along her sides – I wanted her badly. I lay flat on the ledge and drew the fish closer; I could just turn her on her side and touch
her. But the light rod and the current wouldn`t allow me to lift her head and get a finger in her gills. I yelled for Dennis. If he could hold the rod, I could hang over further and use both hands. The noise of the river was too much and he never heard me. I strained hard and actually had the fish planing on the surface for a moment before she protested and raced away leaving me with a broken line and a bruised heart. I lay there for a moment not quite believing it was over. Then I was glad. It just wasn`t right that the first steelhead should be caught on the first cast in the first river.

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